Shipping Container Homes 101: Everything You Need to Know

Wondering if container living is right for you? Homes built from shipping containers are a trend on the rise across the country—from the California coastline to the Tennessee mountain ranges! Whether you’re considering joining the tiny house movement or stacking containers to save money on building materials, here’s everything you need to know about shipping container homes!

What Is a Shipping Container Home?

Photo via @dwellmagazine

Shipping container homes (also known as “cargo homes”) are homes built out of large steel boxes traditionally used for intermodal shipments. Architects, builders, and DIYers have begun converting the containers into environmentally-friendly houses and cabins. These homes are typically narrow and rectangular, unless multiple containers are welded together. Many are open-concept, though some have narrow hallways and sectioned-off rooms. Some feature modern amenities, while others are totally off-the-grid. And as time goes on, they continue to become more and more popular!

While container homes are trendy now, they’ve been part of several design movements throughout history. Before being used for homes, shipping containers were used for schools, office buildings, pools, greenhouses, and storefronts around the world. Then, in the mid-2000s, shipping containers started being repurposed by architects into homes.

What Types of Shipping Containers Are Available?

Photo via @ziontobryce

Before you design your shipping container home, it’s important to understand the different types of containers! Each has benefits and drawbacks, so you should choose which style best fits your needs.


General purpose (or standard) shipping containers are typically made in three different sizes: 8×10, 8×20, or 8×40. These standard containers are 8.6 feet tall. Since standard containers were made to fit on trains, they’re relatively compact. The smallest container has just under 100 square feet of living space, but containers can be stacked or placed side by side to provide more space as well.

High Cube

High cube shipping containers are nearly the same as any standard shipping container, but they’re a foot taller. Many homeowners have said the extra height is helpful when building a shipping container home, especially when it comes to insulating the house. An important thing to know is that high cube containers cost around 50% more than a standard container.


Refrigerated shipping containers are often referred to as reefer containers. They’re traditionally used to transport food products like dairy, meat, and produce. One of the benefits of using a reefer container for your home is that it’s already insulated, unlike the high cube and standard containers. However, there are other challenges associated with reefer containers, such as the cost, refrigeration system maintenance, and unique flooring.

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Pros of Shipping Container Homes

Believe it or not, there are several reasons why people are choosing to live in shipping containers! From decreasing waste in the shipping industry to adopting a low-key minimalist lifestyle, cargo homes offer a modern appeal to tiny home hunters, people who live off-the-grid, and sustainable homeowners.


Some shipping container homeowners are drawn to the project for suitability and recycling purposes. While you can order a brand new shipping container to make into a home, you can also recycle old ones. Repurposing old shipping containers retired from the shipping industry can be a helpful way to cut back on steel waste. However, converting them must be done properly to ensure no dents or rust compromise the structural integrity of the home.

Quick to Build

A top reason why people are drawn to cargo homes is that they have a faster build time! Cargo containers provide the shell of the home so that no time is wasted waiting for the exterior to be constructed. Small container homes can be built in a few days or a few weeks. You can even buy prefab shipping container homes that are made at the manufacturer and ready to live in upon delivery.


While the size of a single shipping container is limited, they’re actually scalable. These Lego-like blocks can be stacked up to eight containers high, equaling the size of a traditional two-story home! Scaling your container design may require additional architectural planning, but it’s not impossible to do.


Shipping containers are much more customizable than you might think! You can develop a variety of floor plans, add personal touches, and make them your own. Consider adding floor-to-ceiling windows, building a rooftop for friends to enjoy, stacking containers to create a loft, or designing a front porch. Whether you’re DIYing your new container home or choosing a prefab home from a company, you can design your shipping container home to look and feel however you want!


One of the main benefits of shipping container homes is their durability. If they’re well taken care of, they can last for over 25 years! The metal structure means it’s resistant to fire, holds up against harsh weather, and isn’t susceptible to rot or mold. The one thing you have to keep your eye out for is rust, but if you treat rust spots properly to prevent corrosion, there’s not much left to worry about!

Modern Industrial Appeal

Shipping container homes don’t just appeal to tiny house hunters. The modular appearance is perfect for anyone looking to hop on the industrial home trend! Container living could be ideal for someone looking for sleek lines and metal accents in their modern, homey space!

Cons of Shipping Container Houses

Photo via @tinyhomiez

Container living doesn’t come without its struggles, but if you understand what you’re up against, they’re easy to combat. Many of the disadvantages of shipping container homes can be overcome with simple solutions like space-saving furniture, steel rod reinforcements, or an experienced contractor.

Narrow Living Space

Tiny house living is not for everyone! One of the clear drawbacks of container homes is the small living space. Unless you’re willing to spend more money to weld containers together, you’ll be living in a 8×20 or 8×40 home. The narrow space can be difficult to plan around, but there are ways to maximize space in a tiny home so that it doesn’t feel cramped.

Limited Insulation

Since shipping containers are made from metal, they don’t offer much insulation. While you may think it’s easy to add insulation, the limited space makes things more difficult. Most container homes use cork, wool, cotton, or spray foam insulation to prevent bulkier insulation from taking up too much space. The best material depends on whether you’re looking for natural insulation material and what your budget allows.

Necessary Reinforcement

The more you cut into your shipping container, the more reinforcement it needs. To prevent structural issues in your home, you’ll need to reinforce the roof and walls. Additional reinforcements like steel rods are needed every time you add a new door or window. And stacking containers on top of each other requires welding shipping containers together.

Lack of Modern Amenities

If you’re not trying to live off the grid, it can be difficult to get modern amenities in your container home. It’s a good idea to find professionals experienced in container home builds when planning your HVAC, electricity, and plumbing needs, but these experts may not be available in your area.

Condition of the Shipping Container

One of the most important things to take into consideration when purchasing a shipping container is the condition it’s in. You can purchase a new, used, or one-trip container. Used and one-trip containers are popular for those trying to help eliminate waste in the shipping industry. However, they can require more time and effort because they often need to be cleaned and repaired.

Possibility of Hazardous Chemicals

If you purchased a used shipping container, you probably want to consider redoing the floors. Hazardous chemicals used in waterproofing the container can be dangerous if you’re going to live in a used container. To be safe from the toxins, remove the original flooring and replace it with plywood from the hardware store. If you’re concerned about the cost of replacing flooring, you could also treat the floor.

How Much Does a Shipping Container Home Cost?

The cost of your cargo container home will depend on its size, scale, condition, and amenities. Typically, the cost of small shipping container homes falls between $10,000 and $35,000, while larger container homes with more modern amenities can range anywhere from $100,000 to $175,000. (Keep in mind that these figures don’t include purchasing and prepping the property where you’ll place your container home.)

Shipping containers by themselves generally cost anywhere from $1,400 to $6,000, with new containers or larger containers being more expensive than recycled or smaller containers.

In many cases, prefab container homes are the more affordable option for home buyers, as prices have been set by the manufacturers, and the homes usually include built-in amenities. Custom-built container homes, on the other hand, can be more expensive due to the materials, labor, and design customizations.

How to Build a Shipping Container Home

Photo via @levimkelly

Ready to build your container home? Whether you’ve chosen to purchase a prefab container home, DIY your own, or hire a contractor, there are a few necessary steps to take throughout the building process.

Choose a Location for Your Home

The first step in building your new shipping container home is to pick a location! Almost every state allows shipping container homes (or are considering allowing them), but it’s good to check city and state regulations before you start the process. Wherever you decide to build, you’ll need to buy a plot of land. The size of the land necessary depends on how big of a container home you plan to build. Once you know where you’re going to put your container home, it’s time to tackle the rest of the building process.

Obtain a Shipping Container Home Permit

Every state has different rules and regulations for container homes, so before you start building your new tiny home, make sure you obtain the necessary permits! You’ll want to check on building codes and zoning regulations and restrictions to avoid any problems in the future.

Purchase a Shipping Container

There are a number of places to buy new and used shipping containers. You can look at retailers like Shipped, or Boxhub, as well as places like craigslist and eBay. You can also purchase prefab homes from companies like Honomobo, Container Homes USA, Custom Container Living, or Backcountry Containers. Just remember to inspect the quality of the container you’re buying, especially if it’s used so you’re fully aware of the repairs it needs!

Plan Your Shipping Container Home

Perhaps one of the most exciting parts of building your home is designing the shipping container floor plan! You’ll need to decide how many containers you’ll need to achieve your design. The number of containers will depend on the number of bedrooms you want or the size of living space you need.

Decide to DIY or Hire Contractors

Are you planning to tackle a giant DIY shipping container project, or will you hire contractors? Depending on your skill level and desired amenities, you can find a lot of DIY tutorials online. But if you’d like help building your home, you can also find contractors who are experienced in shipping container home construction and design. Just make sure to consider the cost of contractors as part of your budget if you go that route.

Get the Land Ready for Your Home

Make sure you prepare your land properly before you pour or place your foundation and install your shipping container home! This can range from leveling soil to actually installing the necessary utilities you want in your home like water, gas, or electrical.

Pick a Container Home Foundation

You’ll want to choose one of the four main types of foundations for your shipping container home. A pier foundation is a relatively inexpensive (and quick to construct) shipping container foundation made from concrete blocks, or piers. Pile foundations are made of cylinder steel tubes hammered into the ground and capped with a concrete block. Another option is a slab foundation, which is when a slab of concrete is poured beneath your shipping container to provide a solid base for your home. A combination of a pier and slab foundation, a strip foundation uses strips of concrete that are poured to support the container around the perimeter. Once your foundation is in place, you can install your shipping container!

Add a Shipping Container Roof

While you don’t technically have to put a roof on your shipping container home because it already has one, most architects recommend you do. There are four common roof styles to choose from. Traditional pitched roofs are usually best for places with varying climates, especially if there’s lots of rain or snow. Flat roofs are the simplest, fastest to install, and least expensive, but they’re often more costly to maintain. Green roofs, or living roofs, involve planting plants and greenery on top of your container home, which provides natural cooling and insulation. Or you could add a terrace roof to increase your living space by putting a patio or deck on top of your container home.


Looking for a secure place to store extra belongings while living in a shipping container home? Extra Space Storage has eco-friendly storage locations across the U.S. that can help. Find available storage units near you!


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